18. Wooden shoes


Dutch hisorian Jan Brander was born on July 24th 1879, into a family of farmers and bulb cultivators, north of Amsterdam. In 1910 he moved to Vlissingen, where he taught geography at a secondary school. His main interest was the history of Dutch whaling. In 1933 he published a book on the island of Jan Mayen, in the arctic North Atlantic. After the Dutch had killed most of the whales around the island, they totally exterminated the Walrusses for their valuable ivory tusks. They would simply chop off the frontal part of the upper jaw, including the tusks, without first killing the animals. Around Spitsbergen, Walrus populations are slowly recovering from this massacre, but on Jan Mayen they never returned.

            After this island in the north, his interest turned to an island in the south, Tristan da Cunha, after he read an article about Pieter Groen in a geographical journal. He dug into Groen's past, and published his findings. He started a correspondence with Groen's (Green's in the meantime) granddaughter, Frances Green, studied all the archives he could find, and eventually, in 1940, published his book Tristan da Cunha, 1506-1902, by far the best and most detailed book on the early history of Tristan. All later authors, including myself, happily copied him.

            With great interest, Brander followed the voyage of the submarine K-18 in 1934. In those days the Dutch were very proficient submarine builders, and were very eager to sell their product to other countries. The K-18, brand new, equipped with the latest findings, was going to be repositioned to the naval port of Soerabaya in the Dutch East Indies, and on the way, she would pay a visit to Tristan da Cunha.

            The K-18 had four special assignments during the voyage. First of all, it had to be a promotional trip. So there were embassy parties, and dinners with captains of industry, in Dakar, Recife, Rio de Janeiro, Montevideo, Buenos Aires, Cape Town, Durban, Mauritius, and finally Fremantle in Australia. The second assignment was science. The famous professor Vening Meinesz was on board. He was a specialist in measuring gravity. Alfred Wegener's idea of continental drift was only a decade old, and still very controversial. Gravity measurements had been taken all over the world, except over ocean floors, and that might give a clue, the professor thought. The problem was that you measure gravity with a pendulum, as the frequency of swinging solely depends on the length of the pendulum and gravity, but a pendulum does not work on a rolling ship. For the same reason, time keeping has been a major problem at sea for centuries, making establishing the longitude at sea very difficult, resulting in the loss of many ships and lives.

            Vening Meinesz solved the pendulum problem by diving deep enough to get away from the influence of wave action. He was the first to map gravity over the Atlantic sea floor and in the Indian Ocean. The third task of the K-18 was to act as a radio beacon in the mid-Atlantic, coming up in the right place and at the right time, for KLM's first trans-Atlantic flight, from Amsterdam to Paramaribo, capital of the Dutch colony of Surinam in South America. The contact was made, but it was a cloudy night so the crew were disappointed not to see the aeroplane. The fourth assignment was visiting Tristan da Cunha, a special request of the British government, because there had been (again) alarming reports about the health and welfare of the poor people on their wretched island. In all likelihood, total evacuation was considered to be the solution.

            On March 21st the K-18 arrived at Tristan. The people of Tristan had never seen a submarine, and some children thought they saw a very strange whale. Most men were on a trip to collect eggs on Inaccessible, so it took a while to find enough hands to fill a boat to meet the K-18, Reverend Wilde taking the lead. Along with the mail, some crew members came ashore, including Lieutenant Wytema, who later published a book about the voyage. He noticed the poverty on the island, but in spite of that, he found the people cheerful and in general very healthy. And he noted, like many others before him, that they all had exceptionally fine teeth, even the oldest people. No sweets, no candy. The only health problem he noted was a nasty cough amongst many of them. This had been known for a while, and was generally attributed to the lack of proper footwear. Their moccasins were not waterproof and in the rainy climate they constantly had wet feet. Reverend Wilde knew the solution. He slapped Lieutenant Wytema on the shoulder and loudly exclaimed: "What these people need is decent Dutch wooden shoes to keep their feet dry!" But he doubted if the Tristan da Cunha Fund would be willing to buy clogs in Holland because of of the Buy British policy. The reverend suggested that perhaps another solution could be found.

            Jan Brander got the message. He found the other solution. He started to raise funds through local newspapers, and soon he had assembled a pile of 750 wooden shoes and there were more to follow. The first batch, 273 pairs of clogs, arrived on Tristan in 1937, with the Cap Pilar. In 1938, HMS Milford delivered the rest, an enormous quantity in large sacks, more large sacks, and even more large sacks. It was great fun to go through the pile and find a pair that fitted. Choice was limitless, as there were far more pairs of clogs than people.

            Jan Brander had more ideas. In the 1950s, he thought that it would be nice to have a Dutch cheese for Christmas, on every table in Tristan. He raised funds again, and bought a large quantity of Edam cheeses (these are round, a bit smaller than a football, coated in bright red parraffin wax, which distinguishes them from the more widely known yellow wagon wheels from Gouda). The cheeses were shipped from Rotterdam to England, awaiting further transport. But alas, in a London warehouse, they went mouldy and rotted away. They never reached Tristan.

            Jan Brander died in 1964 in Vlissingen. In spite of his adventurous mind, and his great interest in remote islands, he never ventured to travel himself. As a teacher, he was known to be strict, not tolerating foul language. He kept extensive files on Jan Mayen and Tristan. The Tristan files were donated to the Royal Dutch Geographical Society (KNAG). The Jan Mayen files came into the hands of the retired Captain Albert Veldkamp, a former pupil of Brander. Later, the Tristan files were moved to the National Archives in The Hague. Both institutes keep a list of transferred files, but the names of Tristan or Brander do not appear in either of them. Brander's Tristan archives are just as lost as the moorhens of Dugald Carmichael. Of the wooden shoes, one pair remained in The Netherlands. Jan Brander gave them to his daughter Marietje.

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